As the definition of love expands with each passing day, relationships have become more fluid. Open relationships and polyamory are no longer unheard of. However, even the most fluid of relationships need basic ground rules to avoid causing unnecessary pain and misunderstanding. So, if you’ve begun the journey of an open relationship and are wondering about the open relationship rules that need to be followed, you’ve come to the right place.
But if you’re still wondering why you need open relationship rules in the first place, ask yourself, have you talked about what counts as cheating and what doesn’t? Have you or your partner ever been jealous because of the time spent with others? Or has your partner ever been involved with someone you didn’t want them to (for very legitimate reasons, not jealousy), but didn’t discuss beforehand? That’s exactly why you need open relationship rules.
How do open relationships work? We asked psychotherapist Sampreeti Das (Masters in Clinical Psychology and Ph.D. researcher), who specializes in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and Holistic and Transformational Psychotherapy. Let’s take a look at the many open relationship boundaries you need, the most common open relationship rules, and how to set yours.
What Do Open Relationships Mean?
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Open relationships challenge the notion that humans are naturally monogamous. To open up a relationship is to acknowledge that a single partner may not be able to fulfill all your needs — emotional, psychological, logistical, and sexual. Open relationships may often be confused with polyamory. Since both are fluid connections, there are certain overlaps and they’re both tough to define in conclusive terms.
In most cases, open relationships are seen as having a single romantic connection, but multiple sexual partners. A polyamorous relationship, on the other hand, is being emotionally and mentally engaged with multiple people at the same time. Open relationships are a part of non-monogamy, an umbrella term that comprises any relationship that does not carry a tag of exclusivity. Since non-exclusive relationships are still uncommon, it’s often up to the parties concerned to set boundaries and make the rules.
“Relationship rules are important to have clarity about what to expect. They govern the entire dynamic. In fact, they help us avoid any ambiguity related to exercising biases about different relationships that we all have due to our socio-cultural backgrounds. For instance, when parents tell children, “Do not be late!”, it is important to also deliver what is the definition of this late,” Sampreeti says.
Open relationships often leave room for jealousy and botched communication that could make things difficult and uncomfortable. This is why open relationship rules are vital, ideally before embarking on the relationship itself. We rounded up the most common open relationship rules and how to set yours.
What Are The Open Relationship Rules To Make It Successful?
When we talk of rules for an open relationship, the aim is that you stay protective of yourself and your partner(s). Setting ground rules for an open relationship is healthy and beneficial for all the partners.
“It is not required to present these rules as a manual right at the beginning. But taking time (before any expressed commitment) to build the strength of a relationship provides ample opportunities to give yourself and your partners an idea of the rulebook. Open relationships will have more complex dynamics anyway. So, rulebooks keep things in check by facilitating boundary regulation in a healthy way,” Sampreeti says.
When it comes to open relationships, every couple and each partner will have a different understanding and expectation of the open relationship rules. What works for one couple may not necessarily work for another, and so the defined ‘permissions’ can be blurry at times. Also, setting some rules is primarily aimed at keeping you safe, sexually and emotionally, and keeping jealousy out of the equation.
Keep in mind that the rules for open relationships will largely vary on what your tolerance is and the kind of equation you have with your partner. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most common open relationship rules list that people tend to fall back to.
Rule 1: Be open about everything
Honesty is the best policy when you are going for an open relationship. Honestly, it’s a pre-requisite even if you’re not dating someone in an open relationship. If you have one partner whom you consider your emotional significant other, don’t hide the fact that you have other partners. Similarly, if you have multiple sexual partners, it would be wise to ensure they are aware of one another (not necessarily in terms of actual identities).
Among other things, you’ll need to discuss timelines and levels of physical and emotional intimacy. You needn’t share too many uncomfortable details, but one of the most basic open relationship rules is to keep things, well, open, and honest. Sampreeti also recommends being completely honest with yourself.
“There are many layers of interaction that we form in society. It is important that we become self-aware of our roles in each of them and how far we can give ourselves to those. Once that is figured out, we can let others know about our nature of involvement in multiple relationships. Also, be very clear about your commitment levels too,” she says.
Hiding things might create jealousy between your partner and you, and cause a major imbalance giving way to unnecessary power struggles. A good start to this conversation might be to ask all your partners their interpretation of an open relationship and what it means to them. The more you learn about the psychology of open relationships that you and your partner have, the better you’ll be able to sustain it.
Rule 2: For a successful open relationship, do not undermine the feelings of your other partners
Just because you have a primary partner does not mean you undermine the feelings of other partners. The very concept of an open relationship is also to ‘open’ ourselves up to the idea that a sexual partner doesn’t have to be ‘less’ than a romantic or emotional partner. Here, too, honesty will come in handy.
Let them know what you are looking for — do you just want to hook up on Tinder or is it a relationship that you want? You may need to be sensitive to a partner who feels threatened or jealous of someone else that you may be seeing. You may also need to set timings for when you will see partners for each week or month, lest insecurities take over your relationship.
“A great many would agree that relationships need proper communication. But few can define what it is in this scenario. There can be guidelines about communication, but what is proper in a particular relationship has to be self-invented, or with the help of experts — like counselors from the Bonobology panel,” says Sampreeti.
“In an open relationship, invest into inventing a pattern of communication that works for you and your partners. Be open about your feelings, whether it’s inadequacy, jealousy, or joy. This will encourage your partners to open up about their feelings as well,” she adds.
A partner’s jealousy shouldn’t reach a point where it hinders your self-exploration with other people, but it does need to be talked about in a safe, gentle manner. As you can see, the rules for open relationships largely revolve around having excellent communication. But as Sampreeti pointed out, you first need to assess what you even mean by great “communication”.
Related Reading: The 7 Fundamentals Of Support In A Relationship
Rule 3: Successful open relationships set boundaries and limitations
This is important both for the partner in the primary relationship and the other partners you have. Set sexual boundaries. Set emotional boundaries. Be specific. What if one falls in love, and wants to pursue it while staying in their primary relationship as well? Could a person be your support system as well as a sexual partner? Do you have oral sex? Is it okay to indulge in sexual acts that you do not do with your primary partner?
Talking about these things in advance will prevent jealousy, guilt, hurt, and disappointment. Also, be sure to talk about things that are off-limits. Discuss consent in detail with all your partners. If it’s important in monogamy, it may be even more important in non-monogamous bonds.
“I’ve been in an open relationship for three years now. And the boundaries tend to expand and shrink depending on where we are in our lives. If one partner wants out and another takes their place, I make sure we have the open relationship boundaries discussion all over again,” says Tanya, a 23-year-old law student in Texas.
Emotional boundaries are just as important as physical ones in any open relationship rules list. It is crucial to discuss what emotional and social interactions are okay. Is it okay for your partner to go on a date with someone they met on a dating app? Is it okay if they meet in a social context? Talking about these things will prevent your relationship from falling to distrust.
Rule 4: A basic but vital open relationship rule is to use protection
How do open relationships work? By making safe sex a priority. Safe sex is important no matter what your relationship status. And since you’re going to be with multiple partners, put this at the top of your list. You may want to ask new partners to get themselves tested before getting physical with them.
Having multiple partners can be an open invitation for STIs and STDs if you’re not smart about it. Get yourself tested frequently as well. It’s just good health planning. Popping in an emergency contraceptive pill is not advisable and you should avoid it as much as possible. Talk to each other about using protection, be it in the form of condoms or dental dams if you have oral sex. Always use protection lest you transfer any disease you contract to your primary or other partners.
Rule 5: Be careful about who you hook up with
Is it cool to hook up with one of your partner’s classmates from high school? Or the boss from the company where your partner worked before? Be careful with this — open relationships do not mean being open to everyone and ignoring that may be the reason behind closing an open relationship.
Your partner might want to get intimate with people they already know while you might be uncomfortable with the idea that you might run into those people and create an awkward social situation. Getting personal with a Facebook friend is okay? Are Tinder dates cool? Whatever it is, discussing it with your partner might save the ugly arguments later.
“Self-awareness is important in open relationships,” Sampreeti says. “If you’re aware of who you are and intentional about the decisions you make regarding your partners, you’ll be able to navigate things better.”
Rule 6: Don’t underplay jealousy
Ah, the green monster that creeps up on us even in the most stable of relationships. It’s hard enough in a single-partner relationship, but when there are multiple bodies (and hearts) involved, that creeping, unhealthy jealousy is bound to come into the picture. And no, one of the rules for an open relationship is not “You can’t be jealous”.
Like all matters pertaining to relationships, you’re not going to be able to organize your open relationship into a neat Excel sheet, no matter how many open relationship rules you make and discuss. You’re dealing with people and feelings, and it’s going to get messy.
The open relationship rule here needs to be to not trivialize jealousy. One of the partners can get jealous of other people their partner is seeing. Don’t ride it out by keeping the emotions in and feelings bottled up. Don’t ignore it either. Don’t say stuff like, “Baby, you are just jealous.”
Open communication is very important. Don’t shame them for feeling jealous, don’t shame yourself for it either. However, one-sided open relationships may need a lot more than just accepting the jealousy to be able to deal with them.
Related Reading: 11 Ways To Improve Communication In Relationships
Rule 7: Remind your partner that you love them
Assuming you have one primary partner, it’s always a great idea to remind them that you adore them. Gentle reminders every day about how much you love them will make the open relationship thrive. There might be doubts in your partner’s mind about losing you to someone else, so it is important to tell them you want them fully in your life – sex or no sex, monogamous or non-monogamous.
Our open relationship advice will be to go out on regular dates with your primary partner, bring them gifts, and go on holidays to make them feel wanted and cared for. This is one of the most important open relationship rules.
“My primary partner is fairly relaxed about our open relationship, but let’s face it, we’re terribly conditioned to feel undermined in a relationship if we’re not the ‘one and only’,” says Brian, a reader from New Orleans. “We realized pretty quick that if dating someone in an open relationship, you’ve got to make your primary partner feel special. So, once every few months, we go on a little love-moon (we’re not married so we don’t say honeymoon), and just focus on each other.”
Rule 8: Back out if it doesn’t work
Actually, this is the most important and difficult rule of any relationship, open or not. No matter how long you have been dating or been together, getting into an open relationship is a different ball game altogether.
It does not necessarily suit everyone. If there are too many issues cropping up in your relationship, you might want to back out of it. Revisit it when you both have the same mindset. Remember, you’re not getting into an open relationship because it’s ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’. Closing an open relationship or separating from your partner because of need-incompatibility doesn’t make you uptight or boring.
Related Reading: Different Types Of Relationships: Find Out Yours
Dos And Don’ts Of Open Relationships
Now that you know the open marriage (or relationship) rules, you might have a better idea of how to go about yours. Still, there are a few things that can go wrong without you even realizing how you messed up. Before that happens to you, take a look at this list of dos and don’ts so you can avoid a major faux pas that might just ruin things for you.
|Be honest about your intentions and why you want an open relationship
|Do not lie about the number of partners you have or what you do with them
|Establish a strong foundation of trust, support, love, honesty, and communication in your primary relationship
|Do not get into an open relationship hoping to fix all the problems that your monogamous relationship is facing
|Clarify your boundaries, limitations, expectations, and feelings
|Don’t assume anyone’s boundaries and expectations, they might be very different from yours
|Talk about everything — right down to the very last detail, if that’s what you both want
|Don’t talk about the things that your partner(s) has specifically requested you to not share
|Talk about how much time (of course, tentatively) you’re going to give to the primary partner and to the lovers
|Don’t assume that a ‘schedule’ will fall into place
|Talk about who is off-limits
|Don’t assume that your sexual partners are okay with being ‘outed’. Anonymity could be important to some
|Do accept jealousy as a normal emotion
|Don’t hate your partner or shame them for being jealous
The psychology of open relationships really depends on how you treat yours. If you’re reluctant to enter into it, or if you’re trying it out to fix all the problems of your current relationship, things may go from bad to worse. But if you follow the rules and the things to do that we’ve listed out for you, it might just be smooth sailing.
What Are One-Sided Open Relationships?
One-sided open relationships are about one of the partners being sexually/emotionally involved with other people and the other not doing so. But one-sided open relationships also need honesty and a lot of communication, because jealousy and possessiveness are bound to creep in.
One-sided open relationship rules demand that the partner who continues in a monogamous relationship should be informed about the other partner’s multiple relationships. If they have reasonable reservations and requests, that should be respected.
One-sided open marriages and open relationships exist mostly when one partner is incapable of having sex, is asexual or demisexual, or has lost interest in sex after a long marriage. In other cases, the reason for the one-sided open relationship can also be when a partner is polyamorous or wants to explore a same-gender relationship in their heterosexual, monogamous marriage.
The only issue is that one-sided open marriages could become exploitative when one partner is forced to give consent because they are scared of their partner leaving them or want to keep the marriage intact for their kids. But like all open relationships, one-sided open relationship rules say it is reversible. If the partners see it’s not working, they can go back to being monogamous. That is, of course, if it’s a healthy and respectful bond.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “What if my partner wants an open relationship?” You have to understand how you feel about it first. Many people initially feel a sense of shock. But if you’re empathetic and see where your partner is coming from, it’ll allow you to have a candid conversation and be respectful about their emotional needs in the relationship. Also, you should ensure that your partner is willing to stop any time you feel uncomfortable about it.
One-sided open relationships can be difficult to navigate. A bit of dishonesty about your intentions, your multiple partners, or any STDs might wreak havoc. If you do find yourself in a similar position, make sure you’re able to talk about everything that comes to your mind, and are completely on board with the decision that you arrive at, be it to stay in the relationship or to leave.
Are open relationships healthy?
Open relationships are not the norm and some naysayers might cringe at the term itself, but open relationships are as healthy as monogamous relationships. They need as much emotional, mental, and physical work as monogamous relationships. There’s trust, passion, fighting, cheating, and breakups in open relationships just like in monogamous ones.
A recent article published in The New York Times stated that partners in open relationships experience the same levels of satisfaction, psychological well-being and sexual satisfaction as those in monogamous relationships. So, are monogamous relationships healthy? Of course. Sampreeti points out that any adult, consensual relationship structure that you’re comfortable with and that fulfills your psychological and sexual needs is healthy.
So, yes. Open relationships, too, like any other relationship are healthy as long as the partners are on the same wavelength and feel similar levels of significant mental, emotional, and sexual satisfaction. Of course, that depends on the open marriage rules and boundaries you’ve set up.
Can open relationships work?
As long as dishonesty, jealousy, and fear don’t ruin the relationship, open relationships can thrive. However, before getting into an open relationship, you need to ask yourself if you want your relationship to be open for sexual freedom or is it a way to retreat from your partner. Regular check-ins with your partner, maintaining absolute honesty, and variations of the rules you set before you started can make open relationships as beautiful as you want them to be.
Can an open relationship save a relationship?
A relationship goes downhill because of a lack of communication, and physical and mental incompatibility. The fissures are often as clear as day, especially to the outsider looking in. If a couple thinks that they can save their relationship by opening it up, it’s bound to ruin their own relationship further rather than help it.
- An open relationship needs boundaries, limitations, and conversations around expectations to thrive
- The most important thing to remember is to always be honest and communicate about everything to ensure clarity
- Each relationship is going to have different rules and expectations, make sure you communicate them
- Open relationships have the potential of being healthy and satisfying, provided that the foundation between the primary partners is a strong one
An open relationship cannot thrive on shaky grounds. If there are problems in the relationship already, bringing other people in it will, in all probability, make it worse. A marriage or a relationship cannot be saved by transitioning into an open relationship. Instead, the effort should be to bring back the couple’s communication, empathy, and sensitivity first. Once that is established, a couple can venture into an open relationship if they still want to.
Keep in mind the one golden rule: honesty. Every relationship survives on honesty and trust, and so do open relationships. And even when it comes to rules, follow them honestly. What do you think can be added to the open relationship rules to make it smooth sailing? Tell us in the comments below.
If you’re in a monogamous relationship and want to ask your partner for an open relationship, you must be honest about what exactly you want, and why you want it. If your partner agrees with you, things will work out. However, if things go the other way and they’re not on board, there may be a few things that you both need to talk about, like why you need an open relationship and how important that need is for you, whether your partner is ready to unlearn their conditioning, and whether you already have feelings for someone.
If the foundation of trust, respect, support, love, and honesty is strong, there’s no reason that an open relationship cannot be healthy. Setting clear boundaries and discussing expectations about the whole experience can also greatly help deliver an overall healthy experience.